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How to create a world-class university

July 11th, 2011

The Grattan Institute is advertising a lecture on “How to create a world-class university” by Andrew Hamilton, VC of Oxford and previously Provost at Yale. As the ad says, “Hamilton has been a leader in two universities that are world class by any measure”.

Still, if we take his experience as representative the obvious answer to the question is of how to create a world-class university is “found it in 1700, or preferably earlier”. Hamilton may have some significant achievements, but the creation of a world class university doesn’t appear to be among them.

That’s a snark, but it conceals a serious point. The fact is that (with a handful of marginal exceptions) the leading universities in most developed countries, including the US, UK and Australia, are those that were leading universities in 1900. There is very little evidence to suggest that anything done by a vice-chancellor or provost can achieve more than marginal improvements in the relative ranking of a new university. Conversely (and I won’t name the Australian examples I have in mind) even spectacularly bad management can’t do much to damage a university that has been around for 100 years or more.

That in turn means that common assumptions about the benefits of competition in the university sector are almost entirely wrong. In the absence of effective market mechanisms by which well-run firms prosper and grow while badly-run firms shrink and die, competition is essentially meaningless.

The expansion of competition between Australian universities has led to huge spending on marketing and advertising, and the growth of a large supporting bureaucracy, but it’s done nothing to improve standards.

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  1. Emma
    July 11th, 2011 at 13:40 | #1

    Absolutely right, John. And for more recent good examples, such as ANU, the best thing seems to be found a university, give it a bunch of money to appoint good people and let them do what they do for 5 decades, before you appoint the marketing staff. Sheesh.

  2. aidan
    July 11th, 2011 at 13:42 | #2

    Talk like this and you won’t get the VC job in a hurry John.

    More “strategic reform initiatives energising the synergies” is required.

  3. Uncle Milton
    July 11th, 2011 at 13:52 | #3

    The leading universities in Australia are the G8, of which three (Sydney, Melbourne, Adelaide) were around in 1900. Three of them (ANU, Monash, UNSW) were established relatively recently (at least by Oxford and Yale standards) and became very good universities very quickly.

    Overseas, while most of the great universities were established long ago, many of them didn’t become great until fairly recently (after the war). The Ivy League universities pre-war were pretty much just finishing schools for gentlemen, with rules (such as: no Jews, blacks or women) which kept them mediocre (at best). After the war, the (eventual) relaxation of these rules, combined with the weight of money well spent, helped make them great.

    So, it can be done.

  4. ken n
    July 11th, 2011 at 14:19 | #4

    I agree JQ. When non-profit organisations try to become “businesslike” they often misunderstand how a good business is managed. I have written about this in the classical music world where similar mistakes are made.
    I suspect that universities were better run in the days when VCs were not appointed from outside but from within.
    A friend of mine in business used to say that it takes three bad general managers in a row to destroy a good business. A very good one can pull a good business back from the edge but almost never turn a mediocre business into a good one within his or her six or so year term.

  5. PeakVT
    July 11th, 2011 at 14:25 | #5

    Perhaps it’s the handful you are referring to, but most of the University of California campuses were founded after 1900. Also in California, Stanford and CalTech were founded less than a decade before your cutoff, and I doubt they were considered leading universities by 1900. In east, Carnegie-Mellon was founded in 1900, but only started granting 4 year degrees in 1912. So, at least in the US, the application of huge gobs of money can create a high quality university in relatively short order. Hardly surprising

    That still leaves the question of whether an established university can surge upward significantly in a mature system (which in the US I would define as after 1970 or so).

  6. July 11th, 2011 at 14:35 | #6

    I have worked in management at several of these G8 universities and my experience is that they become world class in spite of senior management. Generally they do so because academics and admin staff work their arses off for the benefit of the disciplines and students who study them. Bad management can severely hamper this, but a VC no more positively makes a good university than a prime minister positively makes a good nation.

  7. Uncle Milton
    July 11th, 2011 at 14:38 | #7

    “whether an established university can surge upward significantly in a mature system (which in the US I would define as after 1970 or so).”

    UC San Diego: founded in 1960, ranked 14th in the world according to Shanghai Jiaotong rankings (differently ranked by different measures, but world class on any measure).

  8. ken n
  9. Ikonoclast
    July 11th, 2011 at 15:53 | #9

    @ken n

    “…it takes three bad general managers (CEOs?) in a row to destroy a good business.”

    I guess we know what happened to Telstra then.

  10. July 11th, 2011 at 16:09 | #10

    As PeakVT says above, Caltech doesn’t really fit your rule and by most measures it is always in the top 5 universities in the world. On the other hand Caltech is nothing like the other major universities in that it is tiny, only accepts the very best students and has ridiculously good faculty…

    There are some up-and-coming places in Asia that are getting it right. NUS (National University of Singapore) is a good example…

  11. ken n
    July 11th, 2011 at 16:27 | #11

    “General Manager” is a generic term for the bloke who runs the business, Ik. I don’t hold with fancy titles.
    Your comment on Telstra is pretty close. But an organisation that has operated as a monopoly for many years will always find it difficult to work in a competitive market. And it made the mistake of spending its effort trying to keep as much of the monopoly as possible, rather than getting on with the job.
    But we are derailing JQ’s thread.

  12. Peter Evans
    July 11th, 2011 at 17:29 | #12

    There’s only one rule for building a university that will attract funding, good students, and publishing kudos (assuming it’s not >200 years old).

    Put it in an area where rich people want to live.

    There are a few exceptions (largely as a result of nationalistic pride), but look at Stanford and the more successful UC schools, the better 20th century UK and French universities, UQ, UNSW, Monash. I can’t speak for the burgeoning tertiary sector in China and India, but I’d be pleasantly surprised to be proved wrong.

  13. John Quiggin
    July 11th, 2011 at 17:39 | #13

    I think the exceptions pretty much prove the rule. If you draw up a list of the top universities in English speaking countries, you can find a handful that are “only” 50 years old.

    As Emma says, ANU is probably the best example of a first-rate university created by conscious effort since WWII, and it seems most unlikely that we will see anything like that again in the English speaking world.

  14. rog
    July 11th, 2011 at 18:39 | #14

    Telstra is a pertinent comparison, once released into the private sector it became dysfunctional, with shareholders being serviced at the expense of customers.

  15. Uncle Milton
    July 11th, 2011 at 18:54 | #15

    Isn’t there a private university currently being established in London by big names like A.C Grayling and Richard Dawkins? It will be interesting to see if it succeeds.

    The formula for establishing a world class university is pretty simple, in theory.

    1. Lots of money

    2. Super-star academics to attract other first rate academics.

    3. Keep it focused. In particular, no medical
    school (hugely expensive, requires a teaching hospital, subject to massive government and professional regulation, medical academics take over everything)

    4. Attractive facilities for students (gyms, comms networks, etc)

    5. Degree courses which attract both serious students and those for whom university is just a means to the end of a well-paying job.

    5

  16. Ken n
    July 11th, 2011 at 18:59 | #16

    Rog. – the privatised Telstra was better at customer service than government owned Telecom had been. That’s not saying a lot, but do you remember waiting 4-6 weeks for a connection and being unable to connect an answering machine because Telecom did not supply them?
    And how long distance and overseas charges came down with a bit of competition?

  17. rog
    July 11th, 2011 at 19:08 | #17

    Well ken, the share price of telstra should be able to support your hypothesis. But it doesn’t, the privatised Telstra lost market value and that is a fact.

  18. Ikonoclast
    July 11th, 2011 at 19:14 | #18

    So no good university has been created since Tertiary Education was quasi-privatised, corporatised and mangerialised? Gee, why am I not surprised?

    The astonishing thing about privatisation, corporatisation and managerialism is they have been an unholy trinity of disasters yet they are such an article of faith in oligarchic, elitist circles and the propaganda for them is so extensive, that denial of their failure succeeds decade after decade. When will we wake up from this nightmare of the destruction of the values of social democary?

  19. iain
    July 11th, 2011 at 19:46 | #19

    I think the concept of world class university is essentially being replaced by world class learning, thinking and the application of successful traits.

    A cross between things like; Kamenetz’s DIY U, MIT’s opencourseware, and face to face mentoring of better human beings, will be the more likely future of excellence in education.

  20. sam
    July 11th, 2011 at 21:05 | #20

    @rog
    Not to mention trying to game the regulator with years of delayed investment, massive infrastructure duplication with Optus cables, monopolistic internet prices, expensive advertising campaigns promising the world but delivering nothing, refusal to turn on ADSL2 DSLAMS until forced, and countless other stupidities.

  21. rog
    July 11th, 2011 at 21:29 | #21

    Doesn’t matter Sam. The free market value of the privately owned and run Telstra has been diminished by market forces. It has always been Telstras market to lose.

  22. July 11th, 2011 at 23:44 | #22

    One Australian university that is very much regarded as second tier has had a researcher come across some truly stunning evidence. If it’s confirmed, and that’s a big if, I can’t really imagine how it could *not* result in a Nobel Prize for Physics at some point. It’ll be interesting to see what that does for the university’s reputation – will it lead to a virtuous circle of more prestige, money, quality research etc, or will it become an obscure blip, largely relegated to academic trivia nights?

    If the former it might suggest something can be done through targetting strengths, combined with some serious luck. If the latter then yep, I think we’re back to serious government money being required.

  23. John Mashey
    July 12th, 2011 at 02:07 | #23

    I don’t think there is something special about universities in this regard, exactly the same thing goes on with corporations and market share.

    1) Corporations may rise and fall, but installed base matters.

    2) It is much easier to build a a leader is a new area, than to taken on the leaders in an old one. How many companies dethroned IBM in the mainframe market? (zero) But as minicomputers and then micros came in, new companies were able to arise and prosper. But building a new leader following the same business-model is very, very hard.

    2) [I've lived next to Stanford since 1983]. When it was founded, it was a sleepy almost-rural area, not a place most rich people would come to live then. [Obviously now is different, given that it is surrounded by Palo Alto, Menlo Park, Portola Valley, and Los Altos Hills.]

    3) As broken as CA can be government-wise, it is still ~10% of the US and one of the world’s largest economies … but it is still relatively new. The big population growth here really followed WW II. Hence, it is unsurprising that most of the counter-examples are here, it was essentially a new market, and with any reasonable investment, there had to be some good universities. It is slightly odd that, at least according to these rankings, 3 of the top 10 and 6 of the top 20 are here, but then CA is a big state, and even Cambridge, MA has 2 of the top 10.

    4) Anyway, just think of universities as businesses in a competitive market. if there’s an empty market (such as a geography, with $) that is poorly-served, there’s a chance. hence, there will surely be world-class Chinese universities, for example. If there is a new business model, there is a chance. Otherwise, it is really an uphill struggle. For one thing, an established entity already has a large number of “check-off” items in place, i.e., features/facilities one *must* have to compete, but are not competitive differentiators. Only if a new model comes along that makes those features irrelevant (in which case the older entity is stuck with some baggage), can one compete. In many markets, “distribution channel” or “installed base” is the most difficul;t to acquire. For example, creating a new chain of bookstores probably wouldn’t have been a good idea in the 1990s .. .but doing Amazon was.

  24. Freelander
    July 12th, 2011 at 03:49 | #24

    The essence of modern managerialism is to take full credit for the work entirely of others; in this respect, Andrew Hamilton is demonstrating that he is the very modern manager in taking credit for having built up Oxford and Yale into world class universities.

  25. Chris Warren
    July 12th, 2011 at 08:27 | #25

    There seems to be a vast difference between a world class teaching university, and a world class research university.

    Is there evidence that graduates from varying universities have poorer skills depending on the particular university they attended? Australia has a regime of quality assurance that should ensure equal outcomes across the land.

    The only advantage that established universities have is that they attract better students in the first place. The University then gets an apparent better outcome from these students – but this is not a “quality of university” effect. It is a “quality of recruitment” effect. These universities then crow about their own supposed value, and in doing so are in fact exploiting the students who were enticed their way.

  26. Martin S
    July 12th, 2011 at 10:06 | #26

    Universities seem to represent an extremely unusual environment for managers. I was involved with an organisation being run by a state government that was substantially involved with fundamental research. The disconnect between upper management and those at the coal face was stunning. There was an assumption from upper management that the 100 experienced scientists didn’t have anything to contribute to the decisions that affected them. The whole organisation became disfunctional.

  27. July 12th, 2011 at 10:29 | #27

    Well, one historical variable is that the term “university” has meant very different things in different places and at different times. The modern research university, looked at as a functional entity, dates from Germany in the second half of the nineteenth century; didn’t really take hold in the US till after WW1, slower still in the UK, in Australia not until after WWII.
    And from Italy in the 12th century till about the early 1980s universities were corporations of the academics, self-governing fiefdoms, effectively partnership operations; the switch to being businesses with employees doing the teaching is very recent indeed. The neutering of the Professorial Board went by almost unnoticed, but it does represent an enormous change.

  28. Neil
    July 12th, 2011 at 15:51 | #28

    Worth noting that at Oxford the academics have a degree of say over management decisions that is much greater than almost any other university.

  29. July 12th, 2011 at 19:41 | #29

    Pr Q said:

    Still, if we take his experience as representative the obvious answer to the question is of how to create a world-class university is “found it in 1700, or preferably earlier”. Hamilton may have some significant achievements, but the creation of a world class university doesn’t appear to be among them.

    Undoubtedly there is a great advantage in having a distinguished academic tradition. This reinforces the conservative trope that old established institutions get that way by performing a valuable service. Fogeys rule!

    Pr Q said:

    The fact is that (with a handful of marginal exceptions) the leading universities in most developed countries, including the US, UK and Australia, are those that were leading universities in 1900.

    What stands out in surveying the global rankings of universities is the pre-dominance of the United States over the RoW. The TLS releases an annual ranking of global universities and US unis usually take more than half the top slots. This year’s survey is no different: the US is 53/100.

    My impression is that US unis are worlds best in part because they are rich but also because they compete vigorously for students and for support from their Alpha-male alumnis. Given that state unis are of high quality it seems that there is a large mostly level playing field for tertiary education in the US. So uni competition does spur academiic performance.

    More generally, unis founded under the auspices of the British empire utterly dominate (81/100) the global uni rankings. Obviously speaking English is a big academic advantage. But I suspect that the somewhat snobbish elitist aspects of tony British unis really do promote academic excellence.

    TLS Top 100 2011
    1 Harvard University United States
    2 California Institute of Technology United States
    3 Massachusetts Institute of Technology United States
    4 Stanford University United States
    5 Princeton University United States
    6 University of Cambridge United Kingdom
    6 University of Oxford United Kingdom
    8 University of California Berkeley United States
    9 Imperial College London United Kingdom
    10 Yale University United States
    11 University of California Los Angeles United States
    12 University of Chicago United States
    13 Johns Hopkins University United States
    14 Cornell University United States
    15 Swiss Federal Institute of Technology Zurich Switzerland
    15 University of Michigan United States
    17 University of Toronto Canada
    18 Columbia University United States
    19 University of Pennsylvania United States
    20 Carnegie Mellon University United States
    21 University of Hong Kong Hong Kong
    22 University College London United Kingdom
    23 University of Washington United States
    24 Duke University United States
    25 Northwestern University United States
    26 University of Tokyo Japan
    27 Georgia Institute of Technology United States
    28 Pohang University of Science and Technology Republic of Korea
    29 University of California Santa Barbara United States
    30 University of British Columbia Canada
    30 University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill United States
    32 University of California San Diego United States
    33 University of Illinois – Urbana United States
    34 National University of Singapore Singapore
    35 McGill University Canada
    36 University of Melbourne Australia
    37 Peking University China
    38 Washington University Saint Louis United States
    39 Ecole Polytechnique France
    40 University of Edinburgh United Kingdom
    41 Hong Kong University of Science and Technology Hong Kong
    42 Ecole Normale Superieure, Paris France
    43 Australian National University Australia
    43 University of Göttingen Germany
    43 Karolinska Institute Sweden
    43 University of Wisconsin United States
    47 Rice University United States
    48 École Polytechnique Federale of Lausanne Switzerland
    49 University of Science and Technology of China China
    49 University of California Irvine United States
    51 Vanderbilt University United States
    52 University of Minnesota United States
    53 Tufts University United States
    54 University of California Davis United States
    55 Brown University United States
    56 University of Massachusetts United States
    57 Kyoto University Japan
    58 Tsinghua University China
    59 Boston University United States
    60 New York University United States
    61 University of Munich Germany
    61 Emory University United States
    63 University of Notre Dame United States
    64 University of Pittsburgh United States
    65 Case Western Reserve University United States
    66 Ohio State University United States
    67 University of Colorado United States
    68 University of Bristol United Kingdom
    68 University of California Santa Cruz United States
    68 Yeshiva University United States
    71 University of Sydney Australia
    72 University of Virginia United States
    73 University of Adelaide Australia
    73 University of Southern California United States
    75 William & Mary United States
    76 Trinity College Dublin Ireland
    77 King’s College London United Kingdom
    78 Stony Brook University United States
    79 Korea Advanced Institute of Science and Technology Republic of Korea
    79 University of Sussex United Kingdom
    81 University of Queensland Australia Australia
    81 University of York United Kingdom
    83 Ruprecht Karl University of Heidelberg Germany
    83 University of Utah United States
    85 Durham University United Kingdom
    86 London School of Economics and Political Science United Kingdom
    87 University of Manchester United Kingdom
    88 Royal Holloway, University of London United Kingdom
    89 Lund University Sweden
    90 University of Zurich Switzerland
    90 University of Southampton United Kingdom
    90 Wake Forest University United States
    93 McMaster University Canada
    94 University College Dublin Ireland
    95 University of Basel Switzerland
    95 George Washington University United States
    95 University of Arizona United States
    98 University of Maryland College Park United States
    99 Dartmouth College United States
    100 ENS de Lyon France

  30. July 12th, 2011 at 19:42 | #30

    Oops, tagging fixed.

    Pr Q said:

    Still, if we take his experience as representative the obvious answer to the question is of how to create a world-class university is “found it in 1700, or preferably earlier”. Hamilton may have some significant achievements, but the creation of a world class university doesn’t appear to be among them.

    Undoubtedly there is a great advantage in having a distinguished academic tradition. This reinforces the conservative trope that old established institutions get that way by performing a valuable service. Fogeys rule!

    Pr Q said:

    The fact is that (with a handful of marginal exceptions) the leading universities in most developed countries, including the US, UK and Australia, are those that were leading universities in 1900.

    What stands out in surveying the global rankings of universities is the pre-dominance of the United States over the RoW. The TLS releases an annual ranking of global universities and US unis usually take more than half the top slots. This year’s survey is no different: the US is 53/100.

    My impression is that US unis are worlds best in part because they are rich but also because they compete vigorously for students and for support from their Alpha-male alumnis. Given that state unis are of high quality it seems that there is a large mostly level playing field for tertiary education in the US. So uni competition does spur academiic performance.

    More generally, unis founded under the auspices of the British empire utterly dominate (81/100) the global uni rankings. Obviously speaking English is a big academic advantage. But I suspect that the somewhat snobbish elitist aspects of tony British unis really do promote academic excellence.

    TLS Top 100 2011
    1 Harvard University United States
    2 California Institute of Technology United States
    3 Massachusetts Institute of Technology United States
    4 Stanford University United States
    5 Princeton University United States
    6 University of Cambridge United Kingdom
    6 University of Oxford United Kingdom
    8 University of California Berkeley United States
    9 Imperial College London United Kingdom
    10 Yale University United States
    11 University of California Los Angeles United States
    12 University of Chicago United States
    13 Johns Hopkins University United States
    14 Cornell University United States
    15 Swiss Federal Institute of Technology Zurich Switzerland
    15 University of Michigan United States
    17 University of Toronto Canada
    18 Columbia University United States
    19 University of Pennsylvania United States
    20 Carnegie Mellon University United States
    21 University of Hong Kong Hong Kong
    22 University College London United Kingdom
    23 University of Washington United States
    24 Duke University United States
    25 Northwestern University United States
    26 University of Tokyo Japan
    27 Georgia Institute of Technology United States
    28 Pohang University of Science and Technology Republic of Korea
    29 University of California Santa Barbara United States
    30 University of British Columbia Canada
    30 University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill United States
    32 University of California San Diego United States
    33 University of Illinois – Urbana United States
    34 National University of Singapore Singapore
    35 McGill University Canada
    36 University of Melbourne Australia
    37 Peking University China
    38 Washington University Saint Louis United States
    39 Ecole Polytechnique France
    40 University of Edinburgh United Kingdom
    41 Hong Kong University of Science and Technology Hong Kong
    42 Ecole Normale Superieure, Paris France
    43 Australian National University Australia
    43 University of Göttingen Germany
    43 Karolinska Institute Sweden
    43 University of Wisconsin United States
    47 Rice University United States
    48 École Polytechnique Federale of Lausanne Switzerland
    49 University of Science and Technology of China China
    49 University of California Irvine United States
    51 Vanderbilt University United States
    52 University of Minnesota United States
    53 Tufts University United States
    54 University of California Davis United States
    55 Brown University United States
    56 University of Massachusetts United States
    57 Kyoto University Japan
    58 Tsinghua University China
    59 Boston University United States
    60 New York University United States
    61 University of Munich Germany
    61 Emory University United States
    63 University of Notre Dame United States
    64 University of Pittsburgh United States
    65 Case Western Reserve University United States
    66 Ohio State University United States
    67 University of Colorado United States
    68 University of Bristol United Kingdom
    68 University of California Santa Cruz United States
    68 Yeshiva University United States
    71 University of Sydney Australia
    72 University of Virginia United States
    73 University of Adelaide Australia
    73 University of Southern California United States
    75 William & Mary United States
    76 Trinity College Dublin Ireland
    77 King’s College London United Kingdom
    78 Stony Brook University United States
    79 Korea Advanced Institute of Science and Technology Republic of Korea
    79 University of Sussex United Kingdom
    81 University of Queensland Australia Australia
    81 University of York United Kingdom
    83 Ruprecht Karl University of Heidelberg Germany
    83 University of Utah United States
    85 Durham University United Kingdom
    86 London School of Economics and Political Science United Kingdom
    87 University of Manchester United Kingdom
    88 Royal Holloway, University of London United Kingdom
    89 Lund University Sweden
    90 University of Zurich Switzerland
    90 University of Southampton United Kingdom
    90 Wake Forest University United States
    93 McMaster University Canada
    94 University College Dublin Ireland
    95 University of Basel Switzerland
    95 George Washington University United States
    95 University of Arizona United States
    98 University of Maryland College Park United States
    99 Dartmouth College United States
    100 ENS de Lyon France

  31. John Mashey
    July 13th, 2011 at 05:54 | #31

    As a minor nit, I’m not sure what “founded under the auspices of the British Empire” means :-)
    Does that mean English-speaking? (Stanford would be surprised to hear it was founded under those auspices :-) )

    Of course, one must avoid getting carried away with numerical orderings, as many of these are statistically indistinguishable, even assuming assuming the specific metrics are meaningful, and of course, departments differ in radically in strength. However, in US {Harvard, MIT, Princeton, UC Berkeley, Stanford, Caltech, in no particular order, except East to West and North to South} almost always show up at the top.

  32. Jim Birch
    July 13th, 2011 at 10:51 | #32

    @Jack Strocchi
    I’m not sure that Cambridge competed vigorously for Charles Darwin’s attendance, or that he ever quite became part of an alpha-male alumni supporting the institution. He is, however, clearly part of the history of Cambridge and part of it’s attraction. While the better students, patronage, success, and a philanthrophic alumni certainly enhance a universities status, it seems that one of the key appeals of the old universities is actually that they (appear to) have a culture that pre-dates the modern competitive “degree factory.”

  33. CJ
    July 13th, 2011 at 18:57 | #33

    I wonder how many higher education institutions founded before 1700 are not around today.

  34. July 13th, 2011 at 22:12 | #34

    John Mashey @ #31 said:

    As a minor nit, I’m not sure what “founded under the auspices of the British Empire” means. Does that mean English-speaking? (Stanford would be surprised to hear it was founded under those auspices )

    The countries that host 81 of the world’s top universities, according to TLS survey, were all founded or run “under the auspices of the British Empire” – US, AUS, CANADA, SINGAPORE, IRELAND, HONG KONG. Obviously these countries took British universities, specifically Ox-Bridge, to be their model.

    Being old, venerable and British seems to give one a competitive advantage, which should please the Queen no end.

    British institutions still have plenty to teach the world. It makes you wonder how much the post-modern world has lost through its chippy black-armband view of the British Empire. Monty Python ought to do a sketch on this:

    Reg: And what have the [English-speaking people] ever given us in return?
    Masked Activist: The railways.
    Oh yeah, yeah they gave us that. Yeah. That’s true.
    Masked Activist: And the bridges!
    Stan: Oh yes… constitutional government, Reg, you remember what the city used to be like.
    Reg: All right, I’ll grant you that the railways, the bridges and constitutional government are three things that the British have done…
    Masked Activist: And the internet…
    Reg: (sharply) Well yes obviously the internet… the internet goes without saying. But apart from the railways, bridges, constitutional government and the internet…
    Another Masked Activist: Botanical gardens…
    Other Masked Voices: Animal Protection Societies
    Reg: Yes… all right, fair enough…
    Activist Near Front: And the whiskey…
    Omnes: Oh yes! True!
    Francis: Yeah. That’s something we’d really miss if the British left, Reg.
    Masked Activist at Back: Quality universities!
    Stan: And a metropolitan police force – it’s safe to walk in the streets at night now.
    Francis: Yes, they certainly know how to keep order… (general nodding)… let’s face it, they’re the only ones who could in a place like this. (more general murmurs of agreement)
    Reg: All right… all right… but apart from railways, bridges, the internet, constitutional government, Botanical Gardens, animal protection societies, whiskey, quality universities and a metropolitan police force… what have the British done for us?
    Xerxes: Brought peace!

    Minor quibble: the first modern university was founded in Bologna, capital city of my father’s home province. Forze Bolongnese!

  35. Freelander
    July 14th, 2011 at 00:07 | #35

    @Jack Strocchi

    The ranking of universities tends to be somewhat anglo-centric. Could the ranking be biased, perhaps? However, the Pythonesque jingoist tale of ‘the British’ ignores the achievements of the continent and elsewhere and the numerous gifts events have given the universities of the English speaking world. (The British ‘empire’ was never any ‘Roman’ empire.)

    These numerous gifts have included numerous refugees before and after the two World Wars, who have brought their intellectual gifts and abilities with them. And has included numerous gifts from the developing and third world, who also have been an important component of those universities intellectual capacities.

    Of course, a certain person’s persecution of the Jews in Europe and other’s persecutions of Jews elsewhere also resulted in a great gift of intellectuals to American universities.

    Despite this flow of gifts from various parts of the Old World, the non-English speaking world still isn’t doing too badly and some who have gone from the Old World have eventually gone home.

  36. John Mashey
    July 14th, 2011 at 02:59 | #36

    Were Oxford & Cambridge influential?
    For sure, but there are also some fundamental differences in structure, especially at Cambridge, where the individual colleges are rather more independent, in some cases with Byzantine arrangements that a few years ago, caused the auditors to refuse to certify the books.
    See Cambridge.
    A college is where students live, eat and socialise. It is also the place where students receive small group teaching sessions, known as supervisions.

    Each college is an independent institution with its own property and income. The colleges appoint their own staff and are responsible for selecting students, in accordance with University regulations. The teaching of students is shared between the Colleges and University departments. Degrees are awarded by the University.”

    Some Cambridge colleges are *rich*. Trinity is supposedly one of the largest landowners in the UK.

    I don’t know Oxford as well, but it is somewhat similar.

    Most American schools are not set up quite that way, although UC Santa Cruz, home of the Fighting Banana Slugs does something a bit similar in organizing more of undergraduate live around colleges.

    Places like Stanford or MIT or land-grant schools certainly more resemble Imperial College.

    I wouldn’t claim to be an expert on UK universities, although my wife did her undergrad work @ Cambridge, her PhD @ Imperial; the long-time Imperial Rector (Lord Ron Oxburgh) is an old friend, we’ve met Alison Richard a few times (my wife introduced her at a local Cambridge alumni event). Alison was brought from Yale to Cambridge in part to straighten out the aforementioned auditing issues as well as rework other things, by Bill Janeway (who I know, is Chairman of Board @ Cambridge).
    I’ve lectured at Cambridge a few times, and once each at the others. We still have various friends scattered around UK academe. Anyway, as usual, some things may be trackable to Oxbridge, but there are also big differences.

  37. John Foster
    July 14th, 2011 at 10:35 | #37

    “In the absence of effective market mechanisms by which well-run firms prosper and grow while badly-run firms shrink and die, competition is essentially meaningless.”

    So, John, you have finally ‘come out’ as an evolutionary economist! The International Schumpeter Society looks forward to you joining up and participating in its biennial Conference in Brisbane in July 2012!

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